When a 77-year-old dementia patient wandered away from his Blount, Tenn., home in his underwear during the middle of Easter night this year, first responders were out in force, all night trying to locate the man.
Blount Emergency Management Director Lance Coleman was visiting family but got the call late that morning that the man had gone missing and drove to county administrative offices to help. He asked Blount County Sheriff Chief Deputy Jeff French if it would be an appropriate time to use the IPAWS notification system to alert residents and further the search.
IPAWS is FEMA’s Internet-based Integrated Public Alert Warning System for issuing public alerts and warnings.
French gave his go-ahead, and he and Coleman crafted a message for the alert on a laptop on Coleman’s Chevy Tahoe. It was the first time they had used IPAWS since the official deployment in January, highlighting a partnership with CivicReady.
“I hit send, and within five seconds the message went to the IPAWS [FEMA] lab in Maryland, bounced back and hit every cell tower within an eight-mile radius and woke up a lot of folks,” Coleman said. “And all of our phones went off at the same time.”
As per policy, Coleman contacted 911 operators to let them know that the alert had been sent and to expect calls. As he was talking, the dispatcher interrupted and said the man had been located. Coincidence, Coleman thought.
But in fact, an alert resident had heard the message, looked out the window and saw the man.
That situation was just the kind of alert notification scenario Coleman had in mind when partnering with CivicReady on the implementation. The county had previously deployed an alert system, but the process fell apart quickly.
“We had spent $38,000 a few years ago on a system and were able to get 800 people to sign up and then almost immediately they wanted to be taken off because they didn’t want to be notified about anything and everything,” Coleman said.
He said the county had been “kicking the tires” on notification systems for about 18 months and was already familiar with CivicReady, having used it for social media and Web products before. “They were all good products but came with sign-up connectivity and we didn’t need that,” Coleman said. “It creates a cry-wolf mentality when you hear something so many times you stop paying attention to it.”
Coleman was able to work out a solution with CivicReady, got FEMA approval and, thus, the system that best suits the county. “It’s really user-friendly and very effective. It was something we’ve been wanting to do. We knew we needed to have IPAWS connectivity because we wanted to be able to notify folks in case something happened.”
There was another incident when the system wasn’t as affective. A 6-year-old had gone missing in a rural area and the system was activated. Coleman said the cellphone coverage in the area was limited and the system didn’t reach everyone. “We used other tech to find him.”